Porcupine Tree – The Nostalgia Factory


“Just like Bart!” —Griffin McElroy, 2016

Rounding out the trilogy of early Porcupine Tree demo tapes is The Nostalgia Factory. This one isn’t composed entirely of new material; the first seven tracks come directly from the previous EP, while the title track and Nine Cats are recognizable, but only just, from Wilson’s Karma days.

In terms of listenability, The Nostalgia Factory is not as much of a chore to sit through as Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm, but neither does it have the same flow and accessibility as the previous EP. Fortunately, one thing it does have going in its favor is its structure; it’s built more or less like a Boards of Canada album, with a rough one-to-one alternation between longer, more structured songs and shorter, more ambient songs. This structure was present in the other two demos, but here it’s refined to the point where it helps move things forward even when it seems like nothing else will.

A short missive from fictionland before we begin: by this time Porcupine Tree’s token real person has become Alan Imaginary Duffy, aka The Person Wot Wrote PT’s Really Early Lyrics, here lovingly credited as the Verse Butcher. Natch. This will also be the last time the whole Fake Band thing is played up with any sort of effort.

The transition from Begonia Seduction Scene, the last bit of familiar territory, to Colours Dance Angels Kiss, the first original song, is fine. It feels like we’re being eased out of familiar confines and into something brave and new. But Colours Dance Angels Kiss itself isn’t very good. It sounds like it was consciously shooting for Linton Samuel Dawson’s general mood, but it’s a bit too minimalist and restrained, the bright pings and bubbly noises come off as forced, and Wilson shifted his vocals to a generic high pitch instead of the echoing Geddy Lee resonance he used in LSD. It’s like he was consciously trying to write Linton Samuel Dawson again, which is the first strike against it because LSD came upon its manic, trippy wonderfulness almost by accident, and it’s the sort of effect you can’t deliberately set out to recreate. If you do, you’ll just get something like this.

Prayer (at 11’44”) is an airy little instrumental that makes me wish Wilson had started consistently using wind instruments in his music earlier than 2011. From here we go to the title track, which only exists online in its edited form from On the Sunday of Life, trimmed by about a minute from the demo tape version. Because I realize I’m not getting the authentic Nostalgia Factory Nostalgia Factory listening experience here, I’ll just say it’s quite good, and deal with it in more detail when we get to On the Sunday of Life. At least that entry will have some more content, then. Same with This Long Silence: also good, also only available in Proper Album Edit form.

Sinatra Rape Scene (at 13’37”) is a short forty-second joint that sounds like someone cut up bits of a lounge song and stretched and distorted them into something strange and disquieting. After this, Hokey Cokey, which I can only describe as literally what the Hokey Pokey sounds like on drugs, because halfway through the ominous drums and guitars and slowed-down conspiratorial voices drop out, revealing what everyone else is hearing. And even then it’s still unsettling, because with the slight reverb it sounds like that old horror movie trope of a gramophone playing a creepy nursery rhyme in an empty haunted house at two in the morning.

So naturally we follow this up with Landscare (at 14’18”), which sounds like what’s going on outside the haunted house in which the Hokey Cokey is playing. Delightful Suicide (at 17’18”) has a broadly similar effect, but—and this is almost certainly my White Person showing—the sitars give it more of a vague new-agey feel that’s like a faint candle in the darkness than anything else.

Literally the only point of connection between the Karma version of Nine Cats and the final version found here are the lyrics. I didn’t know what all this meant, either, so let’s focus on the music. Here’s where the songs’ relative placement on their respective albums is key, because if I encountered the fifteen-minute version on The Nostalgia Factory I’d have gotten fatigued, and if the four-minute version closed out The Joke’s On You I’d have been disappointed.

In addition, both versions are clearly out to do different things. Where Karma!Nine Cats was meant to be a sprawling prog epic, PT!Nine Cats comes in and get things done with a minimum of fuss. It’s clearly a product of completely different circumstances than its earlier incarnation. No movements, no long opening instrumental, only a quick guitar solo. I personally still prefer the Karma version because of a natural preference for longer songs, which in this case translates into Nine Cats having space to breathe, but there remains a certain power in the final version’s almost ruthless efficiency.

Split Image (at 18’25”) is like Sinatra Rape Scene, except our source material is not a lounge tune but (apparently) the strings from Psycho, so now it’s overtly terrifying in a 40s-horror-radio-serial sort of way…except for the inviting shimmery ambient bit that swoops in at the end, offering an escape hatch. So naturally, we close out with It Will Rain For A Million Years. This one’s twice as long as the song of the same name from the previous EP, and in contrast to that song’s feeling of complete mental collapse, here it seems like, even though our journeyman says he’s always found questions but never answers, he still seems to have found some measure of enlightenment and inner peace. He’s embraced the mystery. The flutes are really beautiful, is what I’m trying to say. It sounds like—and this is the inner Whitey showing, again—I’m listening to this in a shrine. And with all the madness and tumult we’ve had to get through to arrive here, letting us peacefully drift back to earth like this is the most emotionally satisfying ending this trilogy of tapes could possibly have. We’ve earned this.

We’re not going to touch Cassette Music 1989-1990 because that’s completely unavailable and we’ve already covered everything on it. Much as I would like to have one, of course. Next week, something a bit less overstuffed.

Porcupine Tree – Love, Death & Mussolini


“This is known as ‘value for money’. In the music industry it is known as ‘marketing’. Do your accounting to the sound of Porcupine Tree.” —The front cover of the EP’s booklet, which legit sounds like an ad from Streets of SimCity.

I’m not defending that title.

Clearly in the intervening year between the last tape and this one, “Porcupine Tree” experienced some personnel turbulence, because five of the band members on Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm didn’t play on this one. Maybe Porcupine Tree has the same problem Spinal Tap has with its drummers, only expanded to everyone without any serious creative influence. Either that or The Porcupine Tree is an absolutely wretched leader.

Probably the rarest single Thing in Porcupine Tree’s discography, with only ten copies made. I’m not even entirely convinced the version on YouTube is completely authentic, because eight-ninths of the tape can be found on releases that are somewhat easier to find. Nevertheless, it’s what’s most commonly available (Because, really, do you have an authentic copy buried somewhere in your hard drive? Thought not.), so it’s what we have to make do with.

Side one of the tape is the Extended Player, which begins with Hymn, which is only a hymn in the loosest sense of the word. It takes Cries of Lucia as a background and fills the rest of the space with sped-up and slowed-down voices and strange, ominous drones; foregrounding [even more] and amplifying the base track’s already creepy atmosphere. Or: the cryptid is back, and this time he brought friends.

The tape really kicks off with Footprints, which seems like it describes a bad trip but not the sort of bad trip you’re probably thinking of. Yeah, it’s dark and creepy, but not in a surreal sort of way. We’re not in hell, we’re just…adrift in a gray void. The chorus is just Wilson repeating lyrics from Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, wailing distantly into a reverberating ether, desperately searching for an enlightenment that isn’t coming.

Linton Samuel Dawson (ayyy) is a dark horse in the Porcupine Tree discography; trippy, sure, but bright and poppy, with Alan Duffy’s typically weird lyrics sung in a voice pitched up enough that it’s pretty clear someone was listening to a fair bit of Rush at the time. (And then it’s pitched up even further, to the baby talk noises you make when you’re giving your cat belly rubs. Or is that just me?) It’s fun and bouncy and goofy and without question the best song off the EP, which is amazing because it could just as easily have been Wilson’s Laughing Gnome moment (or if you’re some people it might be anyway). I don’t think he’d write a song this unequivocally upbeat for twenty-seven years. For that alone it’s worth treasuring.

I know by this time it was a spare name lying around that had some notable initials, but in-universe I’m also wondering what happened to the “real” Linton Samuel Dawson that Porcupine Tree gave him a whole song of his own after he left the band. (The real answer is more prosaic, of course, he never existed in the first place, and neither did the rest of them, but indulge me.)

After that all-too-brief bit of levity comes And The Swallows Dance Above The Sun, a moody little synth-poppy thing that sounds like Pet Shop Boys collided with Primitive Radio Gods and threw in an absolutely phenomenal bassline. Part of the reason, spoilers, I’m not interested in comparisons to Pink Floyd is that even in their early period there’s stuff like this that could only have come from 1990. Not sure why Wilson decided to throw in quotes like “I want you to put Felix’s penis on me,” though. Kinda ruins the moment.

Queen Quotes Crowley isn’t quite what it says on the tin. If uptight super-religious moral guardians were A Thing in the UK in 1990, this is what they’d have thought the Queen quoting Crowley would sound like, with drones and distortion and people talking backwards all sinister-like, with a properly claustrophobic bassline thrumming away robotically in the background, as if to say, you are trapped here, what you are seeing is right and necessary, and there is no escape. Thus endeth the Extended Player.

But, since we’ve “taken advantage of the cassette medium,” as the booklet says, we have another side, the Long Player, which kicks off with a shimmery, circusey tune called No Luck With Rabbits. After this, Begonia Seduction Scene, which is indeed a seduction scene, but ripe and curdled.

The final two tracks on the album, Out and It Will Rain For A Million Years, are where the tape really shines. Out features a nice heavy IEM-ish guitar riff over which is laid other guitar, drum, and synth parts and Wilson futilely pleading for the “darkness” to “get out of [his] head.” Even though Out is an eight minute progressive-rock jam, it actually sounds like it’s moving toward something with a sense of purpose (the riff helps a lot) instead of running in circles, something that would become one of Porcupine Tree’s greatest strengths as its career goes on. Out then transitions to It Will Rain For A Million Years, a song that’s structured similarly, but half as long and with a crescendo to a tense, cacophonic wall of sound. This song is a fantastic closer to the EP, and it’s a shame it can’t be found anywhere else. (The song of the same title on On the Sunday of Life is completely different.)

This EP is a considerably easier listen than Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm, largely because it’s only forty minutes and there’s a nice balance between short songs and long songs. This isn’t a blanket condemnation of long, bloated albums, I’ve listened to a few that I really enjoy, but the sort of music that Space Era Porcupine Tree produced wasn’t all that conducive to anything over seventy minutes long. Also these are demo tapes, we (or at least I) don’t really expect demo tapes to go on that long. This EP, in contrast, is much leaner, and thus takes better advantage of the EP format, and is an early demonstration of the sort of effortless flow that would characterize Porcupine Tree’s music from here on out. It’s probably the best of the three.

Porcupine Tree – Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm


“Ah yes, the seminal Peter Cushing’s Kelp Commune.” —Victoria “No Relation” Wilson

Explanation for the title? The “Tarquin” is evidently Sir Tarquin Underspoon, one of Porcupine Tree’s many, many fictional band members, and he has a seaweed farm. Pretty straightforward, really.

Some backstory to cover before we hit the main event. Between 1989 and 1994 Porcupine Tree released two and a half demo tapes with original material, and then half a demo tape and two albums with that same material rereleased and occasionally rerecorded. When we come across a release that features music we’ve covered before (such as how the first seven tracks of 1990’s The Nostalgia Factory come directly from the slightly earlier Love, Death, and Mussolini), we’ll only really stop to talk about them in their new context or, if they’ve been rerecorded, what the new version sounds like. This means that the entries for On the Sunday of Life and Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape could potentially be quite short indeed.

Now for the tape itself. If you’re reading this you probably know that Porcupine Tree was, in its very earliest form, a parody psychedelic/progressive rock band, complete with a relatively fleshed-out backstory and a zillion fake band members with colorful Spinal-Tap-esque [stage?] names who you just know looked like they stepped out of the Summer of Love and into a Holi festival, with the mountain of hallucinatory drugs to match. The frontperson called themself “The Porcupine Tree,” and they played guitar, flute, and a few other things. Why Wilson elected to give his frontperson the name “The Porcupine Tree,” we’ll never know. (If I had to guess I’d say it’s for the same reason David Lynch called his one movie “Inland Empire,” he simply liked how it sounded.) But it’s clear that in-universe The Porcupine Tree is the one making most of the creative decisions, because guess who the band is named after. By the way the parallel to Wilson’s post-2010 solo career is irresistible.

The cover art itself is of three simple black-and-white balloons, which belies the music’s complexity but gives a pretty good idea of where erstwhile lyricist Alan Duffy’s head was and where we’ll be going on this 76-minute trip, ahyuck.

Side A, the Studio LP, eases us into the proceedings with Music for the Head (Here), an ominous, abstract flutey soundscape that segues rather abruptly into Jupiter Island, our first taste of what this tape is about: nonsensical lyrics, psychedelic musicianship, and Steven’s distorted vocals (here pitched slightly higher), and the general sense that something is slightly but disquietingly off-kilter but no one seems to notice. One gets the sense that Jupiter Island isn’t an actual terrestrial island but a resort planet accessible only through Substances, and that Wilson’s performing on Phloston Paradise while chattering imps a foot and a half tall are dancing in time around him. The fear that something’s just a bit wrong is proved true when the song collapses in on itself before drifting into Nun’s Cleavage (Left), which is what I imagine freeform jazz sounds like on acid. Clarinet Vignette is exactly what it says on the tin, a short breather before diving into the extended drum solo that is Nun’s Cleavage (Right).

That’s the first cycle of songs done. Up next is Space Transmission, a transmission from space, not quite an SOS message, from an imprisoned creature with an unsettling ASMR whisper voice who may or may not be a god (or, the God). At the end of the track, God vows that upon his release he will have his revenge…and apparently that revenge constitutes triggering a turnip to self-destruct and kickstart the apocalypse in Radioactive Toy.

Radioactive Toy is seminal, a gloomy, hazy look at the life of the only survivor of a nuclear war. Our smart kid’s monotone vocal inflections in this song are ambiguous; he’s either so traumatized by his radically altered landscape that he’s dead inside, or he’s become so accustomed to it that what is horrifying and alien to us is normal to him. Or perhaps both; he’s clearly got enough brains to know this shouldn’t be normal, but he also sounds like he’s done all these things a zillion times before. The instrumentation is plodding and dirgelike, running on a sophisticated autopilot, keeping calm and carrying on despite the wailing siren in the background making it very clear that something has gone horribly wrong. And now here we are, and we have to muddle through and make some sense of what happened and where we go from here. And right now that means focusing on a routine to bring some superficial sense of normality and stability to the smart kid’s fractured, traumatized mind.

Two breaks, now. First up, Towel, another jazzy, chaotic instrumental followed up by Wastecoat, a collage of cut-up and reversed improvisations that bleep and bounce and wobble and sproing at random. After that, Mute, a song in three parts. The first part is dominated by some low thrumming that sounds like a hulking flying car that’s idling about ten feet above your head. The second part is considerably sunnier, with lots of bright looped guitar bits and some solos and improvisations that sound like they’re just happy to be there. So of course there’s a weird spoken word bit in the middle going on about the horrors of progress, which then segues into part three, which retains many of the same elements from part two but also features a really sweet guitar solo. And then Mute fades out and Music for the Head (There) fades in with a reprise that, with the weight of experience behind it, is somehow slightly more creaking, dissonant, and desolate than when we heard it the first time. Thus endeth the Studio LP.

Side B, the Live EP, is structurally a different beast altogether, and not necessarily in a good way. Where side A had twelve shorter songs, side B has five songs, four of which are over six minutes long.

No Reason To Live, No Reason To Die kicks things off, with the same funereal air of Radioactive Toy, but here it either sounds pre-apocalyptic or that now we’re just wordlessly following the smart kid around as he goes about his business, since he’s already said his piece. As the song goes on, the tempo gradually quickens and the drums start tripping over themselves to keep up, finally coalescing in a hellish droning crescendo that fades out to slightly more pleasant guitar feedback and the occasional cat discovering how pianos work.

As No Reason, &c. fades out, Daughters In Excess rumbles in, at first twitchy and frenetic before exploding in a wall of crashing drums and wailing guitars that sound like a seance gone wrong in an abandoned factory. It’s a fine song on its own, but this was the point where I began to feel seriously fatigued.

The Cross (and its coda, Hole) starts out as a light, acoustic cover of the Prince song, the sort of thing that you can imagine him playing while lounging on the front porch next to a beer, wearing that doofy Stetson he showed off a few times on Instagram. Eventually, though, it becomes a tumbleweed Katamari, sparse and raw, leisurely rolling down the desert plain slowly picking up new instruments as the guitar and drum bits become more technical. There’s power and energy, yes, but unlike with Daughters In Excess there’s not as much tension. It’s a natural buildup.

Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape, the closer, is really the only song off the Live EP that sounds like something Porcupine Tree would have actually played live. The band plays something probably like what Tool was doing around that time, low and ominous, while Solomon St Jermaine leads the audience in meditation before introducing the band one by one. The Porcupine Tree, as the frontperson, is naturally last, and once they’re introduced, they launch into a powerful Floydian solo that the fictitious audience, now primed to let the music flow through them, must have found spiritually transformational. And thus, the audience left the show reborn, baptized into the cult of The Tree, and, really, so have we.

This demo tape is long, and not just in the conventional sense that it’s one of the longest releases in Porcupine Tree’s discography. It’s long in that particular way where you have a ton of songs lying around and want to cram them all together into one Thing. Unfortunately, because side B’s songs are generally twice as long as side A’s, we’re not primed for what’s going to happen in side B, so despite the merit of the individual songs, the tape’s back half becomes a slog to sit through. Tarquin’s would have probably worked better as two tapes, or a double tape similar to The Incident. It’s much easier to listen to when mentally split up that way.

Fortunately, the next tape will be easier to sit through. Also I’m now disgusted with myself that I called the band “The Tree.”